A dog is basically a retarded wolf.
That’s the sum of it. A dog raised in a domestic setting is stuck permanently in the mind of a puppy. It will never need to be taught how to bring down an elk or go for a trapper’s bollocks; all its food will be handed to it and it will spend all its time dozing, rolling around playing with the other puppies and occasionally doing tricks for Beggin’ Strips. Humans rob a once-proud beast of its pubescence.
But you can’t say we’re hypocrites, because we do the exact same thing to ourselves. The majority of modern man, more so than in any other age, remain mentally stuck in childhood for most of our lives.
Our food is no longer to be found twitching and bleeding on the end of our mighty spear, but conveniently provided on any street corner. Most of our time is spent dozing (watching TV), doing tricks (filing TPS reports) for doggie treats (paychecks), and of course, playing. Our wailing demands for shiny red toy firetrucks and chocolate-covered Ritalin have transformed over time into splurging on shiny red sports cars and hiring nice whores with lovely bologna vises to rub up and down on King Sausage of Underpants Land. Modern man is to the gun-toting wilderness-taming ubermensches of the Old West what a dog is to a wolf. A retard with a sparkly collar.
The videogames we mature, sophisticated adults enjoy all have their roots in the toys we enjoyed when we were good little crotchlings. Every kind of videogame bears the hallmarks of a particular kind of toy. Shooters are your GI Joes. An adventure game might be a nice big story book. Real time strategy games evoke a battalion of green plastic warriors on maneuvers through the sandpit to Mount Cat Turd (and here we most emphatically do not bring up 3DO’s Army Men franchise).
Then there’s Red Dead Redemption. And I have a very clear image in my mind of its toy equivalent. It’s one of those things you give to toddlers, that as far as I know are still rather stuffily classified as “Activity Centers.” It’s got a bar with some cubes threaded onto it, a bell, a big red thing that squeaks when you press it, and usually a little mirror you can look in and gurgle happily at your fat idiot toddler face. A collection of various different elements that affect each other only in the sense that they’re all attached to the same vaguely teddy bear-shaped mass of plastic. Red Dead Redemption is a big bucketful of toys that each exist only for their own sake with little connectivity, a big Christmas stocking containing a deck of cards, a dartboard, a selection of hats and a copy of National Geographic.
So, you might well ask, what toys did I play with as a child, besides the sharp knives and polythene bags, that makes me sniffy of such entertainment? Well, I’ve blocked out most of it as some kind of defense mechanism, but I think I must have enjoyed playing Mouse Trap. That wonderful sense that every gradual step you take builds towards something awesome (if you played the game properly which frankly no-one did), before the final glorious moment comes and the little man misses the tub or the cage gets stuck. So I prefer a game experience to be an actual game, with rules and risks and rewards and interconnectedness. Red Dead Redemption is a paddling pool. That doesn’t necessarily condemn it. You don’t always want to come home after a long day at work and do five lengths of the breast stroke, but I ask for more from a game than just paddling about.
What disappointed me the most is that there’s no reason to break the law at all. In GTA, gaining a wanted level was this constant occupational hazard that came of doing the standard activities required of missions or just from being too incautious when acquiring the all-important transport, and escaping from the cops was an exciting challenge as you weaved around oncoming traffic and took odd turns to throw them off. In RDR, on the other hand, missions very, very rarely demand breaking the law and there’s no need to steal horses when you can recall your previous one at any time with one button. And fleeing your wanted circle across empty wilderness doesn’t really have the same excitement to it. Becoming an outlaw just becomes another toy to mess around with for its own sake alone, another squeaky red button for the activity center.
Obviously RDR is catering to a broad audience, including casual gamers (seethe seethe), and it seems to be going down well with most everyone else. I can only speak for myself, so this is what RDR needed for me, personally, to like it.
What it needed was a survival mechanic. On-screen meters for hunger, thirst and exhaustion, which constantly tick down as you adventure, requiring that you frequently eat, hydrate and camp out or hire a room for the night. Neglecting these stats worsens your aim, striking power and sprinting ability and decreases the size of your health bar, and may eventually cause you to pass out, at which point it’s even odds whether a good samaritan finds you first or a mountain lion. Lose the insta-horse recall button and make it easier for a horse you’re not riding to wander off, die or get nicked by opportunistic Mexicans.
Instantly, with the struggle of human existence reinstated, virtually every other mechanic is enriched. Money has more worth because of the appeal of softer beds, larger canteens and tastier food. Players would have to be sure they were properly equipped before heading out of town. For a game with a plot whose central theme seems to be “pretentious trappings of civilization versus harsh purity of the wilderness,” it would be most fitting if the player had to ask themselves how much it would take for them to abandon civilization. How desperate will you need to be before you succumb to the wilderness yourself? Before the dog transmutes back into the wolf?
It starts with some pinching of pies from window sills when times are thrifty. Then one day a mountain lion bites your horse’s throat out miles from anywhere and after a punishing few miles’ walk under the baking sun it’s simplicity itself to lasso a passing rider and run off with his mare. You’re just doing what you have to do to survive, right? Before you know it you’re holding up widows in the street. Evil gets easier and easier and the bounty on your head climbs higher and higher. Them high-and-mighty city folk just don’t understand what it’s like out here, gol durn it.
This wouldn’t be hard to implement, in fact, the existing hunting mechanic makes me wonder if this wasn’t the intention early in development, possibly nixed by marketing. It’d be equally easy to add an option to switch “survival mode” off if you just want your paddling pool back. Ooh ooh ooh, another great idea: some kind of “sexual frustration” meter, inviting you to make use of the prostitutes that already exist in the game. And if you’re far from civilization, you could always seduce your horse, but you’d better hope the society papers aren’t watching.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.